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Offstage! - Higher Education

Posted 7/31/2010   Updated 7/30/2010 Email story   Print story


by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Murray
The USAF Band

7/31/2010 - BOLLING AFB, D.C. -- The pursuit of higher education while working full time in The United States Air Force Band offers many challenges. Many Airmen, however, have found that with the help of a variety of Air Force programs and the flexibility of many academic institutions, it is a pursuit that will pay off greatly in the long run.

The women and men of The USAF Band form a uniquely well educated organization. Nearly all members of the squadron have bachelor's and master's degrees, some even have doctoral degrees. Many others have chosen to continue to pursue higher education while working full-time with the Band. However, with an already hectic and inconsistent schedule, it can be incredibly challenging.

Concert Band clarinetist Tech. Sgt. Blake Arrington is pursuing his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Clarinet Performance from The Catholic University of America. He studies with National Symphony assistant principal clarinetist and E-flat clarinetist Eugene Mondie. Sergeant Arrington describes the complex and ever-changing task of balancing work, family and school as, " ... a juggling act, to say the least."

Master Sgt. Brian McCurdy, also a clarinetist in the Concert Band, is currently pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Clarinet Performance at George Mason University. He studies with clarinetist Lora Ferguson of the Washington National Opera.

"It's very challenging to balance a full-time career in the Air Force, family and school," said Sergeant McCurdy. "But in the long run it will be well worth it for so many reasons--most importantly, being able to continue to provide for my family after I retire."

Concert Band piccoloist Master Sgt. Ardyth Scott recently completed her teacher's certification. However, to accomplish all the required course work and simultaneously fulfill her responsibilities to the Air Force, she had to spread her studies over the course of six years and attend four different universities--including Old Dominion University, the University of Virginia, Northern Virginia Community College and Park University.

Fortunately, there are a wide array of programs provided by the Air Force to assist airmen in precisely these situations, including the GI Bill, the Tuition Assistance Program and assistance from Bolling Air Force Base's Education Office.

Further expanding education benefits for all military service members, the new Post 9/11 GI Bill became effective Aug. 1, 2009. The bill offers the most expansive plan for veteran education benefits since the original bill was passed in 1944, increasing educational and financial support to veterans and service members. The Veterans Administration has estimated that nearly half a million veterans will make use of these newly expanded benefits in 2010 alone.

Concert Band tenor saxophonist Master Sgt. Jake McCray was hired by the Band in the midst of pursuing his Bachelor of Arts degree in music from George Mason University. After joining, he continued his studies and found the Tuition Assistance Program an absolutely vital resource to help pay for his education.

"Air Force Tuition Assistance was critical to me finishing my degree in a timely a manner with virtually no debt," said Sergeant McCray. "And while I was attending school, the assistance plan increased from seventy- five to one hundred percent of my school-related expenses."

Many in the Band have also found the Air Force Education Office, located at the Band's homebase, an equally helpful resource.

"The Air Force's education program enabled me to get my teacher's certification," said Sergeant Scott. "And, all of the course work has been paid for."

Ceremonial Brass trumpeter Tech. Sgt. Nathan Clark said, "The Air Force Education Office has been incredibly helpful. If there's ever a problem, they help out in any way they can." Sergeant Clark is pursuing his Bachelor of Music degree in Trumpet Performance from the University of Maryland.

Frequent travel lasting weeks or months comes with the territory of being in The USAF Band, making regular attendance in classes often impossible. Fortunately, technological advances of recent years have provided many in the band a solution to such obstacles.

Singing Sergeants pianist Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnes is pursuing a master's degree in Interior Design from Northern Virginia Community College. He said his instructors are always able to email him the curriculum while he is out on TDY for significant parts of each year.

Tech. Sgt. Christopher Harris, a tenor vocalist in the Singing Sergeants, said, "The only way I could balance work and school was through an on-line program." He is currently pursuing a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Maryland, University College. Sergeant Harris said the school even has a military advisory department designed specifically to assist military members in managing their busy careers with their academic pursuits.

To accommodate the increasing number of working students, many academic institutions offer a wide variety of options for full-time employees.

Tech. Sgt. Emily Lewis is currently pursuing her master's degree in Violin Performance from George Mason University while working full time as an alto vocalist in the Singing Sergeants. She also sings and plays fiddle in one of the Singing Sergeant's small ensembles, Celtic Aire. Sergeant Lewis said most of the instructors at George Mason are well-acquainted with the military bands programs, and are, therefore, extremely flexible when it comes to scheduling rehearsals or classes.

Ceremonial Brass euphoniumist Master Sgt. William Jones is currently in law school, also at George Mason University. For most full-time students, law school is a two-year program. However, the university also offers evening courses that can be spread out over a four-year period, enabling Sergeant Jones and others like him to pursue their degrees while working full time.

"I really enjoy learning about the rule of law and the constitution that we swear to uphold and defend while representing other Airmen," Sergeant Jones said. "The experience of law school is really enhanced by being in The Air Force Band, working at historic sites such as the Capitol, Arlington National Cemetery and the Air Force Memorial on a daily basis."

Although there are many challenges of pursuing higher education while serving in the United States Air Force, members of The USAF Band are very grateful for the many education entitlements that the Air Force has to offer.

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